Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Shattered Planet.
Sure! I’m Tanya Short, the designer and producer of Shattered Planet. I’m the so-called “Captain” of Kitfox Games, which in more formal terms would be something like a Creative Director. I’m an American and I’ve lived abroad for most of my adult life, in Japan, Norway, and now Canada. I worked as a designer on MMOs for five years (on Age of Conan and The Secret World), before founding Kitfox with my three awesome co-founders, Jongwoo Kim, Mike Ditchburn, and Xin Ran Liu.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
In college, I did a couple of internships, one of which was a summer job on the Halo 2 marketing campaign “ilovebees”. I don’t know if you remember, but that campaign had an alternate-reality game attached to it, in which the invading aliens would hack real-life payphones that fans would have to find and decode. As for my part… I was paid by the hour to call payphones and see if they worked. Haha! Soon after that I went to graduate school to study level design at the Guildhall at SMU, working in Unreal, Source, and Radiant to build up my portfolio. My first “real” design job was as an A.I. Designer at Funcom on Age of Conan in 2008.
Where did the idea for Shattered Planet come from?
Well, when the team came together a year ago, we started by making a series of prototypes. We knew we wanted to make a game about “exploration”, and our touchstones were any games that made us extremely curious. The two that stood out were the Civilisation series (especially the first hour or so), and Minesweeper – both make you really intensely curious what’s around the corner. So we made a few prototypes: one was a puzzle game, one was more of a board game, and one was an RPG. The one that stood out, the one we wanted to keep playing, was the one with RPG elements. It actually started out much more of a survival game, with oxygen resources running out with each step, but that turned out to be too stressful for most people. But that was the kernel we expanded on. It wasn’t for another few weeks until we realized we had accidentally re-invented the rougelike.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Shattered Planet?
We did a really good job developing Shattered Planet very quickly! For four people who basically didn’t know each other at all before we started, it’s honestly amazing the speed with which we developed the game and adapted it for a few different platforms. But part of that speed was a lack of long-term planning. The game suffers from a bit of disjointedness, mostly because we never slowed down to really plan out a deeper story or character development. We just kept adding things and tweaking things and before we knew it, we had a game that was pretty good and addictive in its own way – but lacked that strong backbone of plot. It was more of a ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ approach. So with our next game, Moon Hunters, we’re making sure to not rush too quickly into content creation, and really nailing down a vision for a cohesive experience first.
In its current form, how close is Shattered Planet to your initial vision?
Well, it sure is missing about 20 features and systems we wanted to add, but that’s the case with just about any game ever released. But the gameplay and the light-hearted tone are exactly as we hoped they would be – we just wish we could afford to toil away on it another year or two to keep adding more and more things.
Some devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game. Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Shattered Planet and if you faced a similar challenge.
That’s happened to us at one or two points for sure! But that’s why playtesters, or even Youtubers, are so useful for developers. Giving someone the game and watching them get quickly frustrated is a very easy, cheap way to tell you’ve done it wrong! A devil’s advocate can say, “Well, maybe that person was just really bad at strategic planning”, but after the fourth or tenth or twentieth playtester… you know where you have to nerf a few things! Which is all to say that we did a LOT of playtesting, and found that as often as not, it was mostly that a certain feature needed more feedback. A player doesn’t mind dying if they understand why. So sometimes we would lower a damage number, but sometimes we would just add a visual effect, and that would have a better impact on the player experience.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Shattered Planet would run on the various PC system configurations?
Not really. We didn’t think that many people would have 4:3 or 5:4 aspect ratio monitors, so we had to hurriedly patch in a UI fix for those resolutions, but generally it’s been very smooth. Unity is a great engine to work in, for that.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Shattered Planet.
We looked around the game market and saw that A) most roguelikes were fantasy-themed, and B) most science fiction games were extremely serious. There are a few rather famous exceptions to each of these of course, but as a general rule, we wanted to stand out as the light-hearted sci-fi roguelike. So Xin Ran Liu, our artist, played around with a few different art styles before settling on a semi-stylised but also semi-painterly textured, colorful feel. He’s a traditionally trained concept artist, so he got to show off his illustration skills.
Michael Ditchburn, our lead programmer, handled developing most of the procedural generation algorithm. As a trained level designer, I worked with him to include level design techniques (critical path, risk-for-reward, pacing, atmosphere, etc) to the generation algorithm. If you want to know more, catch my lecture coming up in August at the next PAX Dev: “Procedural Generation: By Molecule or By Mythology?”
And the music is all by Ryan Roth, the composer/audio designer who also did The Yawhg, Starseed Pilgrim, Electronic Super Joy, and a bunch of others. He’s awesome! He’s musically quite melancholy, so his ambient electro soundtrack added just a touch of seriousness to the light-hearted absurdity of the game. The original OST is actually on sale direct from him for only $3! He didn’t pay me to say that. I’m just a big fan and love the soundtrack myself.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Money. Money sucks. More than one of the team members are in debt, and can’t afford to work for free. So we have to constantly be looking for new ways to make ourselves sustainable, to get enough money to pay the rent and eat lunch. And of course all four of the team members are creative people – none of us wants to deal with investors or contracts or accountants. But it’s a dreaded necessity.
How did you go about funding Shattered Planet and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
We actually joined an incubator/accelerator here in Montreal called Execution Labs, which is a great little place trying to teach indies how to be entrepreneurs. They paid us basically minimum wage in exchange for us being able to make Shattered Planet, and also getting some business mentorship on the side. At that time they were primarily focused on mobile platforms and free-to-play business models, but it sounds like they’re getting more flexible by the day.
Tell us about the process of submitting Shattered Planet to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
Well, Steam Greenlight went extremely well! Much better than we expected! We were only there 8 days before we got permission to publish. So that was a wonderful surprise. Valve’s whole setup for builds and marketing art and systems has been extremely easy to use. The folks at Humble, Desura, and GamersGate are very friendly and have been very supportive, but they don’t have the infrastructure (yet) to help developers self-publish with quite the same degree of control.
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
We did a ton of research, and finally decided that the most similar title in terms of length, replayability, and genre was Rogue Legacy, which also sold for $14.99. There are lots of theories as to whether things sell better at $9.99 (you drop a whole digit!) or $14.99 (you can afford to do steeper sales faster), but… in the end, we went with the comparison that made the most sense to us.
Can you tell us why you chose to release a demo for Shattered Planet?
We wanted more people to be able to play the core game. We’re four nobodies up here in Montreal, and we know nobody has any reason to care about us, or trust us with their money. So we released the free mobile demo a few months before the PC release, in the hopes that we could get our name out there, and start building a Shattered Planet fanbase. It got 300,000 downloads or so, and was probably part of why the Greenlight campaign went so well, so I think it was worth it.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Shattered Planet from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Super-important! We set up our forums as soon as the demo went out so that we could get feedback from people. Of course we try to do lots of playtesting and quality assurance before we launch, but … once the game is out in the wild, it’s a different beast entirely!
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Shattered Planet professionally?
Some! Medium-high? They have a particular background and are looking for a particular kind of experience. Typically reviewers are very well-read, very intelligent, and I respect what they have to say. But in some ways, Shattered Planet is unambitious; it just wants to be a fun way to waste a dozen hours and get a laugh, not a game that will change your life or change the way you think about the world. So even reviewers that admit they had a great time won’t give it the highest score, which is fine by me. Everyone should be free to say and do what they want. My feelings won’t be hurt.
How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?
It’s great! I’m sure we will join something like that eventually. I think the whole capitalist/classist system of paying for copies of digital media is a bit broken as it is anyway, so I’m also excited about people exploring other funding methods. Henry Smith’s “fund a year of development of free games” Kickstarter was a cool start, and I hope people will try other things. It’s a shame most games are limited to people who can afford to pay a large amount of money for only a few hours of entertainment – especially when, in theory, copy/pasting the file is free. It’s just right now, customers are mostly used to the idea of paying for a product, so the idea of paying a game dev just to work feels odd. It will be interesting to see if that shifts in the years to come.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
Everyone’s flailing. The way I see it, I wish you wouldn’t pirate my game. Please don’t. Right now I don’t have any way of continuing to make games unless people give me money for my games. But there’s also nothing I can do to stop you. No DRM in the world will stop you, if you’re determined. So all I can do is hope. Maybe I should have a kid so I’ll get more pity, haha.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos and receiving monetization of Shattered Planet?
I think it’s great. Kind of ideal, really. If only all advertising was free for me, and still gave income to advertisers who work hard! I mean, I hate that advertising as a mechanism has to exist in the first place – I wish everyone who would like my games would just telepathically know they exist. But until that time, I’d much rather deal with the democracy of YouTube than some kinda Mad Men situation.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
It’s weird. Most indies now know that it’s in their best interest to give DLC away for free. After Minecraft and now Terraria, etc, it’s clear that charging for DLC is something only big companies can experiment with – because they aren’t trying to reach any new customers anymore, only re-sell to their existing audience. I hope we’ll see trending towards “live development” models or maybe even renew the idea of subscriptions, rather than owning little chunks of games.
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Shattered Planet?
It would be awesome! We actually didn’t plan enough for this to be supported easily for Shattered Planet, but we’re already putting it in the plans for our next game, Moon Hunters. We’re really excited to see what players contribute to the myth-building system.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
The most important thing to understand is that a good game isn’t enough. Marketing is a huge part of any commercial success. Fans need time to be won over. Be ready to spend a lot of time doing things that aren’t your favorite part (probably designing and programming new gameplay features) – like writing up interview answers for websites, haha! Just kidding. But really, you absolutely must set aside time to get your game and your name out there or else your beautiful little game will fade away, unseen and unplayed, and that would be a tragedy. Read up on the best ways to reach players (hint: Reddit is great), and get to work!